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Posted by on Oct 6, 2012 in Drama, Freethought Blogs, Nonsense, Philosophy | 42 comments

Guilt By Association: A Response

Jean Kazez recently wrote a blog post on guilt by association, quoted in full below:

“Recently observed in certain combat-ridden regions of the internet: overuse of the phrase “guilt by association.”  People seem to think who you associate with can’t make you guilty, and that’s absurd [emphasis mine].  Let’s say (just hypothetically) that X associates with a racist website.  He likes to criticize Obama, which is of course fine, but does so at White Guys R Us, knowing that this will incite the resident racists to pour racist abuse on Obama. He doesn’t himself engage in racist abuse. He just puts his screed (not a clever screed, but that’s beside the point) at White Guys R Us.  Now, if I criticize X, do I find him “guilty by association” in the pernicious sense?  Of course not. It’s genuinely represensible (sic) that X made his argument against Obama at a site where he knew that would trigger racist abuse.  He was directly complicit in that abuse. More generally, by talking to the racists (about anything), he supports their site and conveys acceptance of them.  He validates and reinforces (all the more so if he never questions any of the racist antics at the site).  X is an enabler of racists, when he ought to be an opponent. Innocent or guilty?  Of course he’s guilty!”

This, of course, appears to be a veiled attack on someone who posts in an internet forum called the Slyme Pit (a name imposed on it by the kind folks at Freethought Blogs and then re-appropriated for empowerment), and who also published an article in another “unapproved space.”  Contrary to the beliefs of many, the Slyme Pit is not a hate site any more than Freethought Blogs is hate site; in fact, it is, in my opinion, far less so. Although I no longer post there, I did about a year ago, when it was hosted on Abbie Smith’s Science Blog ERV, because at that time it was one of the few places in the atheist blogosphere where people were free to express themselves without fear of their comments being deleted, censored, edited, or otherwise misrepresented. Sure, there were some misogynistic views expressed in the Slyme Pit. And some misandric ones. And a ton of foul language. And probably a bit of just about everything else, too. In any case, it was an intellectually stimulating place to be, because the people posting there disagreed with each other all the time. This, of course, is not the case at Pharyngula or on certain other Freethought Blogs sites, where if you don’t toe the party line, you are shamed, booted, and/or blacklisted.  Posting in places where you are limited by ideology isn’t much fun at all.

In any case, if someone were guilty of everything said in a particular forum by merely posting in that forum, then Jean Kazez would be guilty of everything said at FTB. This would include disclosure of private — not public — information, name-calling, libel, self-rape jokes, incitement to commit suicide, gendered slurs, transphobia and, most importantly, extremely poor reasoning. But I don’t believe that Jean Kazez is guilty of all these things, even though she posts on FTB and associates closely with some of the bloggers who write there.

As anyone who’s taken an introductory course in logic knows, guilt by association is a common logical fallacy.  It is an attempt to discredit an idea or a person based on associated groups or people. It is, in fact,  the opposite of an appeal to (non-legitimate) authority. An appeal to authority argues in favor of an idea based on associating an authority figure holding that idea, whereas guilt by association argues against an idea based on associating it with a supposedly disreputable group.

If you’re going to accuse someone of improper behavior, then identify what they’ve done and why it’s wrong. Don’t base it on where their writing has been published, because such decisions are influenced by myriad factors and do not necessarily endorse the positions held by others writing in the same space. If the Slyme Pit were a group holding a certain set of beliefs and person A were a group member, then sure, he’d be “guilty” of being a member of that group and possibly subscribing to its agenda. But a person who writes in an open and public forum or in another publication featuring diverse opinions is only responsible for the things he or she says, not for what is said around or about him.

And finally, association makes you guilty of nothing other than the association itself. Any statement to the contrary is absurd. Imagine what our legal system would look like if anything more were true. Your daughter commits murder, therefore you’re a murderer (or a murder supporter) too. Why?  By association, of course. You associate with someone who belongs to the KKK, though you explicitly disavow those beliefs with both your words and your actions. However, you’re guilty of holding them anyway. Why?  Association! Clearly more than association alone is necessary for guilt. Life is too complicated and interesting to be a mere matter of dismissal of opinions based on faulty reasoning and inaccurate labels.

Exciting update!
In an update to the blog linked above (please read it first), Jean Kazez demonstrates that she doesn’t understand the difference between being guilty by association and being guilty of association. Further, she can’t understand the difference between being responsible for your own behavior and being responsible for (or even aware of) the behavior of others. Since she does have the courtesy to provide a link to a thread where she participated in one of  Butterflies & Wheels’ frequent dog piles, here’s Kazez’s non-associate/friend/non-friend Ophelia Benson’s remark shortly after Kazez’s comment critical of me (note — multiple comments were deleted from the thread by Benson, so the thread is not in the same state today that it was in at the time of posting):

“By the way bluharmony you said above that your integrity is on the line. No it isn’t. Nobody knows or cares who the hell bluharmony is. The integrity of some random nym who’s been cheering on ERV for several days is of no import at all.”  (Benson contacted me via Facebook virtually minutes after leaving this comment, and given how the blog is run, Kazez should have been aware — or at least so her racism example seems to indicate — that something of the sort would occur.)

So, presumably, according to her own ethical mandates, Kazez should have never posted in Benson’s thread knowing that it would elicit the above response, especially given Benson & Co’s  prior cruelty toward me, thus making Kazez guilty of both association and poor reasoning. Guilt by association is, of course, a well-known informal logical fallacy. Kazez says it’s not. Every internet source and logic textbook say she’s wrong. To which she responds that my argument is “a pile of nonsense,”  and then, presumably, goes back to teaching philosophy.

(Side Note: She also makes the claim that 99% of what occurs at FTB is reasonable discussion and throws in a snarky insult at SkepticInk — a network that is in no way responsible for my individual posts.)